MVD Marquee Collection: The Illusionist (2006) - Reviewed

Just a couple of months before Christopher Nolan reignited interest in the romantic triangles that can occur among magicians with his expensive star studded epic The Prestige and a month after Woody Allen’s own magic show Scoop (both starring Hugh Jackman incidentally), writer-director Neil Burger (Divergent, The Upside) released this considerably smaller but no less engaging indie thriller The Illusionist.  Though over the years The Prestige would overshadow the picture that beat it to the finish line, The Illusionist on its own terms remains a solidly crafted fantastical romantic fairy tale.

Loosely based on Steven Millhauser’s short story Eisenheim the Magician peppered with a fictionalized dramatization of the Mayerling incident, this 2006 costumed fantasy period thriller tells the story of Eisenheim (Edward Norton), an illusionist in late nineteenth-century Vienna.  Despite captivating the public with his wild brand of magic trickery, he finds himself under investigation from the nefarious Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti).  

Matters are further complicated when his fiancée the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) rekindles a childhood friendship with Eisenheim which blossoms into a mutual romance, invariably stirring the violent jealousies of Leopold, conjuring up madness, murder and some of the magician’s most impressive work to come yet.

Broad melodrama dressed with period gloss and that golden November look characteristic of other 2006 fantasy features including Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, The Illusionist is a fun dose of romantic escapism thanks to the leading performances of Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton who are instantly magnetic onscreen despite having to don some occasionally hokey period accents. 

Norton makes the illusionist mysterious in his craft while still being relatable as a fellow human though at times the level of his illusions force viewers to suspend their disbelief.  Giamatti is always good no matter the role, bringing with him a sense of command despite being under the rule of the reptilian Leopold with Sewell coming dangerously close to chewing up the scenery.  Biel provides a strong romantic lead and intelligent counter to her boorish and idiotic fiancée and it’s a shame we haven’t seen her in more films as of late.

The triangular relationship with Leopold and Sophie von Teschen is indeed reminiscent of Westley’s battles with Prince Humperdinck over Buttercup in The Princess Bride, though that film treated the subject as meta-satirical comedy rather than a straightforward fantasy period flick.  It’s a trope at this point but the performances and quality of the filmmaking are so good we hardly care.  

Where the film works best are in the dark interiors of the theater with the soft golden glow of candlelight, exquisitely shot and lit by Dick Pope.  Coupled with production design by Ondrej Nekvasil which immediately draws the viewer into a theatrical setting with the period lighting and costumed cast, we feel transported back in time where the lines between magic and practical trickery was especially difficult to discern.

Aiding the film’s mood with an occasional sense of urgency is ingenious minimalist composer Philip Glass’ evocative score.  Always prolific and hypnotic to the ears, Glass’ score while not bearing the thundering scope of his Qatsi films or close to topping the heights set by his Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters soundtrack remains an indelible contribution to the world of The Illusionist.  With Glass’ music, we find ourselves caught up in the drama and tension driving Eisenheim and Leopold’s inspector Uhl to their respective destinies.

Incidentally, both The Illusionist and Nolan’s competing film The Prestige were in fact nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, both losing to Guillermo Navarro for his work on Pan’s Labyrinth.  While it didn’t take home any Oscars, it did manager to win the National Board of Review Award for Top Independent Film as well as winning Best Cinematography and Original Score from the New York Film Critics.  

In the years since it release, The Illusionist isn’t as readily mentioned as Nolan’s magician film but thanks to the good folks at MVD Marquee Collection, filmgoers new and old now have a chance to judge for themselves which of the three 2006 magician films was the best one?

--Andrew Kotwicki